Strange way to win – and Rebels will take it

When I last dropped in on the UNLV baseball team, on March 11, it was coming off a three-game sweep of mighty Stanford.

A broom “borrowed” from one of the bullpens had been raised in triumph by members of the 335 Club, the Rebels’ unofficial booster club, who had made the trip to Palo Alto, Calif.

A call was put in to Miller Huggins, manager of the 1927 Yankees: Would the Bambino and the Iron Horse and Tony Lazzeri be interested in a midweek doubleheader?

Over the three weeks since the Rebels came to town, Stanford has played more like the ’62 Mets than the ’27 Yankees. It has won just three games and lost seven. Stanford lost to UC Davis; it dropped two of three to Utah.

So it can be said that Stanford isn’t as mighty as once thought.

But when UNLV coach Tim Chambers was asked about it Sunday, he said, no, the Rebels wouldn’t be giving back those three wins. Fool’s gold is better than no gold at all, at least in the RPI.

UNLV has been scuffling, too, since returning from the Bay Area. Heading into a weekend series against Air Force, the Rebels had lost two of three to New Mexico, two of three to San Diego State; when Good Friday dawned, they were last in the Mountain West.

Now they are tied for second.

The Rebels prevailed 4-1 on Friday, 11-10 in extra innings Saturday, 8-7 in a rare Easter Sunday game, when they rallied for two runs in the ninth and won on a walk-off fielder’s choice, which one doesn’t see every day.

(A Google search turned up one in 2011, when the Rays beat the Tigers 3-2 in 10 innings. Elliot Johnson hit a bases-loaded grounder at Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge, who decided to throw to second. Tampa Bay’s Sean Rodriguez, running hard, beat Ramon Santiago, the Detroit second baseman who was shifted toward first, to second base.

A writer covering the game said Ben Zobrist, who scored the winning run, didn’t know he had scored the winning run. The writer called this a “weird way” to win a game.)

Collin Yelich, who bounced a single through a five-man, drawn-in infield to win Saturday’s game, was the one who hustled down the line to prevent what looked to be an inning-ending double play after slapping a grounder to second.

Prevent it by an eyelash. One of those Maybelline jobs.

The Baseball Book says you should issue an intentional walk to fill the bases in that situation, or pull in the infield, or both. Air Force did neither.

UNLV assistant coach Kevin Higgins, who once started 134 consecutive games at second base for Arizona State and spent five years in the San Diego Padres’ organization, said he’d never seen, or at least couldn’t remember seeing, a walk-off fielder’s choice.

“You just usually don’t get in that situation,” Higgins said.

When Yelich was shown flattened palms, the 335 Club waved the broom again from its perch adjacent to the right-field foul pole, though this didn’t appear to be the same broom “borrowed” from Stanford, because this broom was missing its handle. It looked more like a squeegee.

When Yelich safely flashed across first base, it also was the only time the home total on the scoreboard in left field had a larger number than the visitors’ side.

UNLV trailed 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 4-1, 6-1, 6-4, 7-4 and 7-6. Every time the Rebels scored, Air Force scored during its next at-bat, except in the ninth, when Nick Libonati came on to sandwich two infield nubbers around a strikeout.

“Libo really stuffed ’em,” Chambers said, which was impressive, considering it had been 45 days since Libonati last pitched. “We just kept fighting.”

Perhaps that was to be expected, because UNLV wore camouflage jerseys to honor Air Force. Chambers has a fondness for the Academy and its fighting men, but Sunday it was the Rebels who fought hardest.

So now UNLV is back in the hunt in the Mountain West, 20-8 overall, and Chambers says losing those series to New Mexico and San Diego State was more bump in the road than sinkhole.

“We’ve got a great group here, we scrap, we’re young,” he said. “We had five freshman in the game at one time.”

One of those was Yelich, who, with the game on the line on Easter Sunday, came hoppin’ down the first-base line, like Peter Cottontail on the bunny trail. UNLV got its sweep.

Hippity, hoppity said Tim Chambers. Maybe the Rebels are back on their way.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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